Coming to Your Senses and Going Within
by Paul Bedson
Mindfulness meditation and mindful practices are often referred to as “coming to your senses.” Instead of being caught up in your head (i.e. in a cognitive world of excessive thinking), mindfulness can bring your attention down to your body (physical sensations) and your heart (feelings, needs, instinct, intuition.) In this way, mindfulness can ground you and centre you.
If you practice mindfulness, you can develop the ability to use both logic (head) and emotion (heart) to respond to situations. Whereas, those who tend to only rely on logic have to think through their possible responses to each situation carefully, which can be tiring, boring and limit spontaneity and creativity.
If mindfulness is about “coming to your senses” or becoming more sensitive, then what are your senses? – Moreover, how does mindfulness connect you to your sensory experience?
Neuroscientists now recognise eight (8) senses: –
6 proprioception – this is the sense that enables you to know where your body parts are and what they are doing. e.g. when eating, you need to know where the spoon is and where your mouth is. (babies need to develop this sense!)
7 vestibular processing – this is the sense that enables you to know if you are standing, walking, lying down. It is related to movement, balance and finding safety in the field of gravity.
8 interoception – this is an internal sensory system by which your internal physical and emotional states are noticed, recognised and responded to.
It is the neurological wiring of these 8 sensory systems that enable us to perceive, process and integrate sensory information coming from outside, and even inside, our bodies.
The first seven (1-7) senses are responsible for relating to the outside world, to other people and to our environment – they develop exteroception, i.e. awareness of what is going on around us, such as being sensitive to what other’s think or feel about you, or being sensitive to the impact of your behavior.
The eighth sense, interoception is responsible for relating to yourself.
By relating to yourself, I mean tuning into yourself, connecting within yourself and listening to your feelings, needs, instinct and intuition.
It is possible to be over or under-responsive to sensory input in ANY of these sensory systems – and this will have an impact on your perceptions, behaviours and relationships.
In a busy, stressful, lifestyle we can overdevelop exteroception and underdevelop interoception, meaning that you can be more aware of what is going on around you (e.g. tasks, other people’s needs) and less aware of what is going on inside you (e.g. your needs and feelings). You can be more motivated or driven by your “should’s”, “have to’s”, “ought to’s” and “must’s” and less motivated by your own needs (“want to”, “choose to”).
Of course in time, exteroception will become a habit that has a neuroplastic impact on your brain. Too much exteroceptive awareness creates an over-aroused and hyper-vigilant mode of perception, i.e. you can become habituated to chronic stress and lose touch with your real needs and feelings.
Mindfulness meditation and mindful practices can act as a ‘circuit breaker’ by gradually moving away from the habit of exteroception, through developing interoceptive awareness. There is an old saying: “If you can’t go within, you go without” – double meaning intended!
Mindfulness gives you skilful steps for going within so you don’t have to always go without.
Psychologists and neuroscientists are becoming more interested in the use of mindfulness techniques for developing more interoception.
It is believed that children on the autism spectrum have not developed much interoception. They haven’t developed the ability to monitor their needs and feelings, however, this can be improved through mindfulness.
From a bigger perspective, most adults can also benefit from developing more interoception. Most adults are having ‘out of body experiences’ and need to “come to their senses”.
An ‘out of body experience’ is living too much in your head and too little in your body and heart.
Here are some of the benefits of developing more interoceptive awareness:
- it enables you to process and respond to your overall emotional state
- it enables you to recognise emotions at an earlier stage and to link your emotions to your needs
- it enables emotional regulation; not to suppress emotions and not to project them onto others
- it enables you to express feelings more responsibly and appropriately
- it enables you to identify your needs and to make requests
- it facilitates more social-emotional development and social competence
- it develops empathy, self-compassion and kindness
- it enables you to develop closer relationships (more intimacy yet also healthier boundaries)
- it develops more emotional intelligence, resilience and more confidence around vulnerability
- it develops more awareness of hunger, thirst and tiredness, so these senses are not overridden by over-arousal
So what mindfulness meditations and mindful practices can develop more interoception? Here are some possibilities:
- Qigong, yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, dancing – basically any body movement activities that are done with body awareness (not trying to be perfect or living up to some image or expectation)
- Breath awareness – from informal practice to the more formalised yogic practices of pranayama
- Sensuality – massage, baths, spas, hugs, stroking, contact with nature
- Body awareness meditations – the Body Scan, the Progressive Muscle Relaxation etc.
- Centring or mindfulness of feelings – we cultivate this through our Mindfulness-based Stillness Meditation taught here at the Gawler Cancer Foundation
- Moderate exercise – staying connected to the body during exercise, i.e. heart rate, movements, sensations.
Mindfulness meditation and mindful practices involve bringing non-judgmental attention to your body and feelings. You practice with kindness, patience and perseverance. You practice connecting with yourself and listening to the quiet voice inside which is related to your needs, instinct and intuition – the voice of your Heart.
You begin to become your own best friend.
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Your body loves your attention. The more attention you give to your body, the stronger the immune system becomes.
If the master is not present in the house, all kinds of shady characters will take up residence there.”
The ‘shady characters’ take the form of imbalances and dis-ease, which develop when you are not present in your body and with your feelings/needs.
Mindfulness can develop the interoceptive awareness which brings you back Home.
The Gawler Cancer Foundation & Yarra Valley Living Centre
BA, BCouns, BAcup
Paul has been working in the field of mind/body medicine for over 30 years as a counsellor, psychotherapist, meditation instructor and natural therapist. His particular interest is in helping people deal with the range of emotional issues associated with their healing journey. Paul also works with grief and anxiety issues and relationship problems. He teaches mindfulness-based styles of meditation which develop wisdom and compassion through awareness of body, emotion, mind and spirit as one integrated Self. Paul co-authored the book Meditation an In-Depth Guide with Ian Gawler.